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Tokyo Olympics officially postponed to 2021

The International Olympic Committee announced a first-of-its-kind postponement of the Summer Olympics on Tuesday, bowing to the realities of a coronavirus pandemic that is shutting down daily life around the globe and making planning for a massive worldwide gathering in July a virtual impossibility.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expects Games will be held by next summer

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question during his press conference about the coronavirus situation in Japan, at the Prime Minister's office in Tokyo on Saturday, March 14. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

The International Olympic Committee announced a first-of-its-kind postponement of the Summer Olympics on Tuesday, bowing to the realities of a coronavirus pandemic that is shutting down daily life around the globe and making planning for a massive worldwide gathering in July a virtual impossibility.

The IOC said the Tokyo Games "must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020, but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community."

It was an announcement seen as all but a certainty as pressure mounted from nervous athletes, sports organizations and national Olympic committees — all confronting the reality that training and qualifying schedules, to say nothing of international anti-doping protocols, had been ruptured beyond repair.

The IOC also said the Games will still be called the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"Utter relief. Excitement. Uncertainty. We're in unprecedented times," Canadian wrestler Erica Wiebe told CBC Sports. On March 14, she clinched her second Olympic at the Pan American qualifying event in Ottawa. "We'll be more ready than ever in 2021 and wearing the Maple Leaf with more pride than I thought was possible."

IOC president Thomas Bach and Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo met via phone Tuesday morning, and they, along with a handful of executives from the IOC and Japan's organizing committee, agreed to make the call.

WATCH | Canadian athletes weigh in on postponement:

Now that the IOC has pushed the start of the Games, athletes took to social media to respond 1:00

Pressure mounted to postpone

Other Olympics — 1916, 1940 and 1944 — have been cancelled because of war, but none have ever been postponed for any reason, let alone a renegade virus that has accounted for more than 375,000 cases worldwide, with numbers growing exponentially. The Tokyo Games would still be called the 2020 Olympics, even though they will be held in 2021.

"The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope," the IOC said in a statement.

The Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee issued a joint statement:

"The COC and CPC would like to thank president Thomas Bach, prime minister Shinzo Abe and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee for this decision which continues to show their commitment to safeguarding the health and safety of athletes and the world community.

"We also renew our commitment to work with the IOC, International Paralympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and offer them our full support in helping navigate all the complexities that rescheduling the Games will bring." The full statement can be found below.

The Canadian federal government also released a statement supporting the IOC's decision.

"Canada stands in solidarity with the international sport community and the people of Japan in particular. The Government of Canada looks forward to the games taking place in Japan in the future. Tokyo is a world-class city and exemplary host with a proven track record of hosting major international sporting events," said Canadian heritage minister Steven Guilbeault.

On Sunday, Bach said a decision on postponing the games would be made in the next four weeks. But pressure grew as national federations, sports governing bodies and athletes spoke out against having the opening ceremony as planned on July 24. Four weeks ended up being two days.

Bach said Monday he did not discuss new dates for the 2020 Olympics in talks with Abe. One option would be July 23-Aug. 8. That is exactly one year from the now-postponed July 24-Aug. 9 dates. He added the exact dates is a question for the Tokyo organizing committee and an IOC panel overseeing the preparations.

The Tokyo Olympic torch relay was slated to begin Thursday. For now, the flame will be stored and displayed in Fukushima, Japan. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

The decision came only a few hours after local organizers said the torch relay would start as planned on Thursday. It was expected to start in northeastern Fukushima prefecture, but with no torch, no torchbearers and no public. Those plans also changed.

"For the time being, the flame will be stored and displayed in Fukushima," organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said.

COC chair has mixed feelings for athletes

One reason the IOC took longer to make the decision was because it wanted to figure out logistics. It will be a daunting challenge. Many of the arenas, stadiums and hotels are under contract for a games held from July 24-August 7. Remaking those arrangements is doable, but will come at a cost. Tokyo has already spent a reported $28 billion US to stage the Games.

Olympic committees in Canada and Australia were saying they either would not, or could not, send a team to Tokyo in July. World Athletics and the three biggest sports in the United States — swimming, track and gymnastics — were calling for a postponement.

On Monday, the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee said they wouldn't send athletes to compete in Tokyo this summer and called on the IOC to postpone the Games for a year.

About 24 hours later, COC chair Seyi Smith said his feelings for the country's athletes was mixed.

"(It's) good that they can focus on everyone's collective responsibility to the pandemic now," he said. "(It's) bad that meticulous planning for the Games and life planning post-games has been derailed.

"Good on the IOC for moving up (its) planned schedule an announcing as soon as possible."

International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons said postponing the Olympics and Paralympics to 2021 was "the only logical option."

Track and field, aquatics worlds were slated for 2021

Canadian hockey great Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC's Athletes Commission, had harsh words for the organization a week ago, saying in a statement posted on Twitter that the current crisis is bigger than any Olympics.

At time, the IOC continued to insist the Games would begin July 24.

The six-time Olympian was thrilled with Tuesday's announcement.

Postponing the Games for a year is "the only decision" the IOC could make, according to Scott Russell of CBC Sports.

"It is obviously going to require some negotiation going forward," he told CBC News Network. "The world (track and field) championships were to be held in the summer of 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. The world aquatics championships were to be held in Fukuoka, Japan in the summer of 2021, but all of those international sports organizations have obviously come together and realized that in order to protect the Olympic Games, they've gotta forego those championships and allow the world to host a safe Olympics in the summer of 2021."

WATCH | Scott Russell on Olympic future of veteran Canadian athletes:

CBC Sports' Scott Russell says the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics could jeopardize careers of some of Canada's older athletes. 5:57

World Athletics said it is talking with organizers about "alternative dates, including dates in 2022." The championships in Eugene are due to run from Aug. 6-15, 2021

World Athletics added it is looking at a new qualification system to account for the postponement and for the havoc wreaked on the 2020 schedule by the coronavirus outbreak.

World swimming body FINA says it will talk to the Japanese organizers of the 2021 world championships about a possible schedule clash with the Tokyo Olympics. The championships are planned for July 16-Aug. 1 in Fukuoka.

Virtually all 33 sports on the Olympic program have key events, including world championships. Famous Hayward Field at University of Oregon was rebuilt and expanded at the cost of $200 million to hold next year's track and worlds. Now that event could be postponed, cancelled or see its stature greatly diminished if its run within months of a rescheduled Olympics.

"A lot can happen in one year, so we have to think about what we have to do," said Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the Tokyo organizing committee. "The decision came upon us all of a sudden."

Virtually every sport across the globe has suspended play in the wake of the pandemic. The worldwide economy is faltering and people are increasingly being told it's not safe to congregate in large groups or, in some cases, even to leave their houses. Gyms are closed across America. Holding Olympic trials in a matter of months was becoming a virtual impossibility.

Most people will agree that this is the decision, Russell noted, but it might also spell the end of Olympic careers for several Canadians, including middle-distance runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu, 31, swimmer Brent Hayden, 36, and 39-year-old Brent Lakatos, a 12-time world Paralympic champion who won gold at the World Para Athletics Championships in November.

"They have to go through another year and hold on to get ready for a postponed Olympics, so there's going to be some hardship and sacrifice," said Russell. "Brent Lakatos told me yesterday that he'd been working 16 years to get ready for the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020 (but he said a year postponement) is a lot to process."

Canada's Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC, told News Network the postponement will create some complications but "it's better than exposing athletes to a dangerous situation."

Fate of athletes who qualified for 2020 Games?

In February, Pound received flak from the Tokyo organizing committee and Japanese government when he stated an Olympic decision could be made as late as two months out from the start of the Games.

"That the end of May is the time-limit, we have never thought of this or heard of such a comment," Muto said in response to Pound. "Our basic thoughts are that we will go ahead with the Olympic and Paralympic Games as scheduled (on July 24)."

Pound, who has been a member of the IOC since 1978 and served two terms as vice-president, wondered about those athletes who had already qualified for an Olympics in 2020.

"Someone who qualified in 2020 might get surpassed by an up-and-comer by 2021," he said. "That's another negotiation point."

With files from CBC Sports

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